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A lesson in living the Skeptical life

Paying tribute to Denis Dutton, one of New Zealand’s leading intellectuals

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

15 January 2011

12:00 AM

I met Denis Dutton on a plane going to a New Zealand Skeptics meeting back in 1994 or ’95 when I lived in Dunedin. Denis was based in Christchurch and had been one of the founding members of the New Zealand Skeptics, though I didn’t know that when, after attending a Richard Dawkins lecture on the South Island, I impulsively joined that group after seeing some of their brochures lying about.

A few months later, on the way up to Auckland for my first ever Skeptics conference, I happened to find myself seated beside this interesting man with an American accent who, it turned out, was not only attending the meeting too, but was the key driving force behind the organisation.

This was Denis Dutton, a Skeptic, man of letters, author of The Art Instinct, founder of the brilliant Arts & Letters Daily website, amateur cold reader, proponent of plain, clear writing, knower of all and sundry, and my friend. Denis died a fortnight or so ago aged 66 after a battle with cancer.

Almost all the obituaries of Denis that I have seen have focused on his wonderful website creation Arts & Letters Daily. And wonderful it was. In fact I can recall one of the yearly New Zealand Skeptics meetings, probably the one in 1997, when Denis told me that he was almost ready to start this website. ‘Truth hates delay’ would be the motto, though in the original Latin from Seneca. And he would aim, he told me, for a few new articles a day selected from anywhere he could get them. His goal was to choose pieces that crossed subjects and disciplines and that would be interesting to a well-read Manhattanite. This reader would be curious about libertarian views and conservative thinking, not just the regular left-wing staples of most inhabitants of Manhattan. And there would be science, book reviews, even good sports pieces. And of course funny, humorous ones on occasion. This was to be the one-stop website for the thinking man and woman with a sense of humour and a curiosity about the world.

My Lord Denis managed to deliver on that goal. Arts & Letters Daily was, and is, one of the best offerings on the web.

A few of the obituaries also mentioned Denis’s dislike of gobbledegook writing and incomprehensible gibberish, most of it found in university humanities departments. The Dutton-initiated Bad Writing Contests, which carried on for years, were plain hysterical at times. They offered a lesson in the herd mentality, that smart people with doctorates would let the worst sort of ungrammatical, jargon-filled prose with virtually no discernible meaning pass without a critical comment, indeed sometimes producing this sort of gibberish themselves. Denis decided to single out the most egregious examples and give them a mock award — to embarrass the writers and all those who had pretended there was any value in this mush at all. It was typically funny, and pointed.

Then there was Denis the Skeptic, a side of him on which virtually none of the obituaries has dwelt. As I said, Denis was a founding member of the New Zealand Skeptics (and no, he wasn’t responsible for the American spelling). This was, and is, a group committed to such things as evidence-based medicine instead of so-called complementary cures that shun rigorous testing and trials — idiocies like homeopathy with its fairytale assumptions and one-atom-of-active-ingredient-per- universe concoctions.

Denis Dutton could even hold his own as a cold reader. This is the term you give to the art of telling people about themselves in a way that makes (some of) them think you have magical powers or can see into ‘other realms and existences’. In fact, of course, cold reading is just the art or skill of using well-crafted questions, facial cues, generalisations, quickly passed-over misses and a knowledge of the odds to tell people things about themselves that they are in fact first telling you.

Oh, and Denis was also an accomplished after-dinner speaker and just plain good company over a drink. He was a polymath who didn’t wear his learning on his sleeve. Put simply, he was never boring. I think he was basically a man of the Enlightenment, and I think he would have liked to be described as such too.

All this and a professor of philosophy at Canterbury University in Christchurch, where he worked for a quarter of a century. One can’t help suspecting that no Denis Dutton-type professor could survive in an Australian university these days. That suspicion, and its attendant regrets, flows not just from the fact that Australian universities are the worst managed and most pervasively bureaucratic in the English-speaking rich world — though they are. It flows, too, from the proliferation in Aussie universities of jargon-filled teaching directives (ripe for Duttonesque mocking), of genuflecting before whatever makes life easiest and most primary school-like for fee-paying students, of a general lack of intellectual curiosity among university managers, and of an incessant need for data (think ‘research assessment exercises’ and teaching scores) even where the data is so shonky as to be worthless. You see the one unbreakable rule of Australian universities is that worthless data is better than no data.

But I digress, albeit along lines with which I am sure Denis would concur. Yet whatever the merits of that digression, Denis Dutton was a remarkable man, a man of many interests, talents, tastes and friends. I was lucky that I picked up that brochure 16 years ago and then found myself sitting on a plane beside the funny man with the American accent who would go on to contribute so much to the intellectual life of New Zealand and the planet.

His was a life well lived.

James Allan is professor of law at the University of Queensland.

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